Developing the right creative approach in college direct marketing

Pegi Anton

Vice President

February 28, 2013

An image shows a female designer using a computer drawing tablet. This represents the role of creative staff in effective higher education marketing.
Develop a creative approach that sells your campus and its unique features and offerings to prospective students.

Part four of the series, Five principles of a successful prospective student direct marketing campaign

Read part one: Building the right list for campus direct marketing

Read part two: Communicating with prospective college students at the most strategic time

Read part three: The importance of the offer in college direct marketing

In my previous blogs on college direct marketing, I explored how to build a better prospective student list, communicate with students at the most opportune time, and add compelling offers to your communications. The next step is delivering the best creative—the marketing messages, copywriting, and graphic design that will appeal to students and make them want to connect with your institution.

It’s often been said that the second-most important word in direct marketing after free is you. When someone gets a direct mail letter or an e-mail, they want to hear what’s in it for them. Prospective students are no different. They want to know how they will benefit by choosing your campus over another. However, when planning their messages, many campuses start with the question: What do we want to tell students about ourselves? What are we about? What do we offer? While it’s true some of those details may appeal to students, that approach doesn’t put the student first and also does not necessarily include what the student wants to hear.

Here’s a better approach: When we start working with campuses using our Noel-Levitz Direct marketing services, we suggest asking what topics are at the top of students’ minds. By understanding their concerns, you can convey specific benefits that will seem much more pertinent and positive.

Increase the impact of your creative by basing it on research into student expectations

To do this, you really need to research your target audience. We conduct “Snapshot Research,” a brief survey that provides insight into the expectations students have about attending college. This research provides the focus for our creative design and messaging strategies.

In my last blog on creating compelling offers, I discussed our work with a health sciences university. We conducted Snapshot Research for them to determine how committed prospective students were to a particular course of study in the health sciences. Had they made up their minds or were they still shopping around for the right career field?  Here’s what we learned:

What best describes your outlook on a future career?

  • I have a specific career direction in mind—55%
  • I have narrowed my choice to several fields—36%
  • I am open to a variety of career directions—8%
  • I have not thought much about a career—1%

The research results told us that while half of the members of our target audience were making a beeline for a specific academic program, another 45 percent were still in decision-making mode.

These results came as a bit of a surprise, as the campus had conducted its previous campaign on the assumption that a student who had indicated pharmacy as an interest on a college-bound student list was indeed interested only in that field. Instead, we shifted our creative approach to indicate that the university offered a great many options in addition to pharmacy. This kind of research-based shift in messaging can make a significant difference in how students respond.

Develop great copy that sells your campus to the reader

Many campuses have writers working for their marketing departments. They may be very good writers who have crafted successful messages that the faculty, administrators, and president have approved. But can they write great direct marketing copy aimed at prospective students?

What makes for great college direct marketing copy?

  1. Communications that focus on the benefits a student receives, not the features you offer.
  2. Language that is economical yet motivational, with key messages conveyed through short sentences and paragraphs, bullet points, and active language that inspires action.
  3. A voice that represents your institution while communicating in a style that the student can relate to.
  4. Clear calls to action that are referenced multiple times so that the student knows exactly what to do next.

More than anything, direct marketing copy has to do more than simply inform students about your campus. It has to sell them on enrolling at your institution.

Even skilled writers in campus marketing departments may not have the experience or expertise in crafting compelling communications for prospective students, which is why many campuses turn to experienced outside firms like ours for direct marketing.

Test creative to find what really works

Just as market research can help you focus your creative more precisely on the needs and expectations of students, testing different creative packages can tell you what types of designs, formats, messages, and offers students will respond to. For example, one of our campus partners loved the self-mailer they had used the previous year. We recommended switching to a personalized letter, and when we tested that approach against the self-mailer, the letter resulted in a significant improvement in response.

Testing design can also reveal what is visually appealing to prospective students. Will they respond to a more simple and serious package? Creative that is more fun or youthful? These are the kinds of answers that you may not be able to determine if you do not test.

The key for creative is to remember that it is an art and a science. Research and data should inform your messaging and creative approach, but creating an effective direct marketing package also requires the art of convincing copy and appealing design. It is arguably the number one thing many campuses think they can do but often do not do effectively.

So how direct is your marketing? How can you connect with more students more effectively and get more enrollment bang for your marketing buck? E-mail me with your questions, challenges, and concerns, and I’ll share additional strategies that are working right now for other colleges and universities.

About the Author

Pegi Anton has worked in higher education marketing for 25 years. She offers extensive experience in campus marketing, market research, communication flows, and digital and print strategy. Her specialty is developing branding and marketing communication...

Read more about Pegi's experience and expertise

Reach Pegi by e-mail at Pegi.Anton@RuffaloNL.com.

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